Serious question: Is 9-1-1 a parody? The new Fox series is nominally a procedural drama about first responders, and it is overstuffed with life-threatening incidents. Just in the premiere, there is home invasion, a suicide jumper, a giant snake constricting around the neck of its attractive owner, and then at one point someone yells: “I think someone flushed a baby down the toilet!” There is a narrating protagonist taking care of her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom, a veteran firefighter recovering from alcoholism, and a tough-as-nails sergeant who plays by her own rules, just like the main protagonists of Grey’s Anatomy, Rescue Me, and every cop show ever.
A key subplot in the first episode follows a brash young maverick firefighter (Oliver Stark) and his inability to not steal firetrucks from the station so he can impress beautiful women. One young woman sizes up his emergency vehicle, and asks: “Is this why they call you…firehose?” They have sex immediately. Also, wait, what was that, someone flushed a baby down a toilet?
9-1-1 comes from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who brought us American Horror Story and Scream Queens. From the former, they’ve brought Connie Britton and Angela Bassett. Britton plays a dispatcher named Abby, and when we watch the suicide jumper leap, Abby’s narration breaks in: “Is it weird that I feel more comfortable dealing with these kinds of emergencies than the one I have to deal with when I go home?” I laughed out loud, because someone just died and the hero of the show is offering us quirky narration? Bassett plays a tough cop named Athena, and she has been onscreen for about thirty seconds when another cop asks her, fearfully, “Don’t we need a warrant or something?” The brash young maverick firefighter doesn’t understand why the veteran alcoholic firefighter (Peter Krause) takes his job so seriously. “See the fire, put out the fire, the rest is blah blah!” he declares, which I think is the entire Wikipedia plot summary for season 6 of Chicago Fire.
He is so wrong, of course, this young maverick. Fighting fires isn’t just about fighting fires. Sometimes it’s about cutting off the head of a giant constricting snake, and sometimes it is about flushing babies down toilets.
You want to think that Murphy and Falchuk have executed some serious deep-satire blackbelting with 9-1-1, that the Parable of the Flushed Baby and the Parable of the Decapitated Snake are their stealth attempt to do for the procedural genre what Scream Queens did for college and then, err, was season 2 about hospitals? But 9-1-1 mainly feels like a professional attempt by eccentric creators to draft their own down-the-middle network series. There are pleasures in any form, and I’ve come to enjoy how so many network pilots contain dialogue that sounds like character summaries from casting calls: “Why is that always the option for you white boy macho tough guys?” and “You were a 37-year-old single woman whose biological clock was running out!” and “I was an alcoholic…I lost a decade of my life, in and out of rehab…I’ve been back on the force for 18 months.” And there are bits of real comedy. For instance, when the firefighters have to tear down the wall to get a baby out of the pipes, the camera cuts to the owner of the apartment. He’s a little bit stoned — it’s legal here now! — and he calmly munches on what looks like Raisin Bran, watching first responders destroy his bathroom wall with the mild druggy ecstasy of someone who just turned on Fox hoping tonight was Gotham night.
9-1-1 tries to cover the full equation of first responder-ing, cops and firefighters and dispatchers and paramedics. It’s a West Coast variation of the gone, forgotten Third Watch, although it’s more topical to explain it as “All the Chicago shows but now Los Angeles.” So it’s a big show, all over the place on purpose: Moments of levity run up against moments of sensitive drama, and decide for yourself where you put “Someone flushed a baby down the toilet!” I don’t know anything about first responders, except the lessons I’ve learned on television, which I assume are all lies. I suspect the actual socio-political relationship between firefighters and policemen is complicated, and I suspect that no firefighter has ever rescued a police sergeant from a motorcycling armed home invader by blasting the perp with a water cannon. But reality is never enough, and with Murphy and Falchuk, you have to wonder if the water cannon is a metaphor.
Any network procedural can come on strong in the expensive pilot, with impressive location work and motorcycling bad guys sprayed skyward by water cannons. I can’t imagine 9-1-1 can sustain this kind of kinetic energy, and I’m worried that Britton in particular seems far sidelined from the rest of the cast.
The other stars are fine, but my favorite performer on 9-1-1 is supporting player Kenneth Choi, another Murphyverse familiar fresh off playing Judge Ito on The People v. O.J. Simpson. He was so wonderful as one of the maniacs in The Wolf of Wall Street, and he is currently filming Bumblebee, the ’80s beach-city Transformers spinoff I have chosen to unabashedly look forward to. On 9-1-1, he plays Howie, a guy who hooks up with girls on a first responder dating site. He usually impresses women by making up stories that didn’t actually happen. When the brash young maverick firefighter saves the strangling woman by decapitating her giant snake, Howie declares that he is definitely going to use this story the next time he’s on a date, casting himself as the hero. My fan theory with 9-1-1 is that everything we’re seeing is actually just in Howie’s head. This show is a fake tall tale he’s telling on a date. The flushed baby was actually just a baby alligator. B-